Hon­ing the Olympic edge

Canada’s suc­cess the end of a long jour­ney, writes Rob Lon­g­ley.

Edmonton Journal - - WINTER OLYMPICS - Rlon­g­ley@post­media.com

For the most part, the mem­bers of Canada’s women’s hockey team have man­aged to keep the eye rolls to them­selves.

The pre­dictable ques­tions keep com­ing — and with Thurs­day’s game against the U.S. now upon us, right on cue. What is it about an Olympic year that swings the puck pen­du­lum in Canada’s favour? Why is it such a great ri­valry? Why are the Amer­i­cans favoured?

Given the for­mat of the Olympic tour­na­ment, it’s a near lock that the two teams will meet for gold yet again next week. And given the U.S. has cap­tured the ti­tle the past three world cham­pi­onships, the Cana­di­ans are un­der­dogs here.

But thanks to a cen­tral­iza­tion pro­gram that max­i­mizes the skill and tal­ents of the best group of play­ers in the world, lit­tle of what hap­pened the past three years mat­ters.

The Amer­i­cans-as-favourites nar­ra­tive must also bring a smile to the Cana­di­ans who have won their two games so far by a com­bined score of 9-1. Of course, they have won the past four Olympic gold medals and also ended 2017 ex­hi­bi­tion play with a four-game win­ning streak over their arch ri­vals.

Their Olympic for­mula, how­ever, pro­vides a proven edge.

“The Amer­i­cans are a great coun­try for hockey, but we are, too,” Cana­dian for­ward Meghan Agosta said. “And ever since Au­gust, we have im­proved con­sid­er­ably. Our coach­ing staff has done a great job get­ting us up to the level.”

Credit coach Laura Schuler with a share of that. There seems to be a com­plete buy-in from her play­ers and the de­fen­sive and of­fen­sive schemes she’s rolled out have been ef­fi­cient in wins over the Olympic Ath­letes from Rus­sia and Fin­land.

But it’s more than coach­ing. In­sti­tu­tion­ally, the Cana­di­ans are better equipped ev­ery Olympic year to kick some butt.

It all be­gins with Hockey Canada’s cen­tral­iza­tion pro­gram based in Cal­gary. The team and sup­port staff checked in to the fa­cil­ity Aug. 1 and other than a Christ­mas break have been to­gether ever since.

The 28 ini­tial in­vi­tees were even­tu­ally trimmed to 23 in late De­cem­ber. Through­out the camp, sys­tems were in­te­grated, eval­u­a­tions were made and the mar­riage of what ul­ti­mately turned out to be nine rook­ies and 14 veter­ans had a chance to so­lid­ify.

“No. 1 (with) cen­tral­iza­tion is the op­por­tu­nity to coach a team full team,” Schuler said. “These girls are get­ting all the sup­port ser­vices they have in place to be the best they can be. Full-time train­ing. Full-time train­ers to make sure they ’re healthy. They ’re staying on the ice. From a coach­ing per­spec­tive, we’re able to sit down and do one-on-one video. There’s just so much more time to teach.”

The process ac­tu­ally be­gan in late May when the play­ers re­ported to a two-week “boot camp” in Fred­er­ic­ton, N.B. Then after shift­ing to Cal­gary, it’s been all busi­ness.

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